Without wishing to jinx anything at the last minute, it is starting to look like we will have some international rugby in both hemispheres before Santa does a socially distanced, gift-sanitised lap of the globe before year’s end.
The single biggest focus from World Rugby since the last Rugby World Cup has been a refocus on actually refereeing the breakdown as the law book intends. How this impacts upon each of the worlds top sides – I am taking this down to seven to include Australia – is going to be of major interest.
This is my take on how they will be impacted.
1. South Africa
There’s a reason every bona fide New Zealand rugby fan loves playing against South Africa at both Super Rugby and international level. The approach is consistent and fits with an ethos of the game we all admire: compete hard at the breakdown on the floor and defend the gain-line across the park like your life depends upon it. A hard focus on competing rather than stopping the opposition playing – it’s a fine but important difference.
Intuitively many would think a law focus that increases the ball speed would trouble the Bokke, but I’m not so sure. It will make it more difficult to maintain a style of playing without the ball, as we saw at Rugby World Cup, for sure, but add some pace to that loose forward trio and some guile in the No. 9 and No. 10 shirts – Cobus Reinach, anyone? – and the new crop of Springboks will be right there.
I would note that their opening round of Super Rugby South Africa games showed the most rapid adaption of any of the domestic comps to date.
2. New Zealand
A new ruck focus plays into how the All Blacks have been trying to play the game for, well, decades. After an avalanche of penalties in the opening round of Super Rugby Aotearoa, the changes in player technique were evident by Weeks 2 and 3, and over the course of the season ruck speed increased by 0.44 of a second, about 25 per cent. Think how far a defender can retreat in half a second and that’s how much harder it’s going to be for defences to reset going forward.
The coordination between players, coaches and referees at the conclusion of each week saw rapid results for Super Rugby Aotearoa and we saw a safer and faster game because of it. The big statistical difference before and after COVID-19 and the law change was a material decrease in the number of set pieces. Halfbacks are going to be a big factor under the new laws. In Aaron Smith New Zealand have the ideal No. 9; however, TJ Perenara and Brad Weber both struggled with the extra pace.
Without doubt the English Premiership is the domestic competition with the biggest challenge under the new focus. Kudos to the Premiership and Rugby England for sending out the referees to go hard, and they still are. But as we are seeing, generating quick ball doesn’t mean you have to use it. Player behaviour has been slower to change here, and there are widely varying approaches to the new normal across the competition.
Will this impact on the national side? Not in the slightest. Eddie Jones has the player pool to rapidly reset his approach and his own public statements on creating space and increasing fatigue through reduced replacements show he is already heading that way in his thinking.
The biggest issue is likely to be at halfback, where pace of pass looks to be in short supply. swap out Sam Underhill for Jack Willis in the loosies and that may well be it.
Ireland is my pick for the nation with the biggest challenges under the new directives. The Andy Farrell narrow pressing defence got shredded by pace at the Rugby World Cup and Ireland’s ability to control tempo by maintaining the ball for long periods will come under genuine pressure by the focus on speed of placing the ball, offensive ruck entry and opposition jacklers not having to survive cleanouts to be rewarded.
There are two areas where clear improvement is required. Pace in the loose forwards is going to need to be generated from somewhere, and the long-term incumbent at halfback is surely finished now. Farrell was appointed for continuity post-Joe Schmidt, I suspect he now has a change management job on his hands.
France look likely to be the biggest winners of the top sides, although they are going have to reach back into their recent history and discard the way their club teams play to truly benefit. A running France, with speed of ball and unset defence lines – look out everyone.
Of all the top international sides France has always played more off nine than anyone, and they are well set to continue this. Antoine Dupont will love running at slow edge defenders – although his pass and ruck-to-ruck work both need to improve – Romain Ntamack is both a runner and a ball-player at No. 10, and with Charles Ollivon and Gregory Alldritt in the loosies, there is something waiting to explode here.
A little more mobility in that tight No. 5 are France are a side you do not want lurking in your pool come the next World Cup.
There are those of us of an age who know that inside the chest of every Welsh rugby player beats a heart that wants to run, pass and then have a pint. But you really do need to be of a certain age to remember it. New coach Wayne Pivac has his work cut out resetting this Welsh squad to compete in the new world.
There will always be a place for being able to strangle a game like Wales did to England in 2019 – it was magnificent stuff – however, when you then play the same way when faced with Scotland and Italy, then you have a problem, not least with your TV deal. I don’t think there’s any doubt putting a lid on games like that will be harder for everyone going forward.
Interestingly, Wales are probably best placed at halfback of all the home nations, and with Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Nick Tompkins likely to become first-team regulars, attack really shouldn’t be an issue. Being able to maintain that defensive press without being able to slow the opposition ball is where the challenge comes.
Quick ball, counter rucks and pilferers not having to survive cleanouts is perfect for Australian rugby, one would have thought. However, at this stage we are none the wiser, as Rugby Australia did not have the kahunas to send the domestic referees out to do their job for fear of a penalty fest turning off their remaining viewers.
Dave Rennie has quite the task on his hands. Finding an offensive ruck presence, a counter ruck and having a structure that can use ball speed are all things no doubt high on his list. The tone of the game is swinging back to the way Australia traditionally like to play it. Let’s hope the coach is given the time to rebuild this side from the ground up to take advantage.
The greatest fallacies imposed on our sport in recent years are that increased substitutes will speed up the game and that reducing the number of penalties blown helps the game flow.
You are onto something here, World Rugby. Stick to your guns. In a world at war for the sponsorship dollar, you may just end up with a product the world wants to buy.